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Saturday, December 31, 2016

Warsaw, Part 1: Royal Castle

The Palace of Culture & Science, a "gift" from the Soviet Union to Poland

"Driving for long distances in Poland is no fun."

So sayeth the 2012 Lonely Planet Poland guide, and it's an observation this traveler can't find fault with. What should have been a six-hour drive (according to Google Maps) from Vilnius to Warsaw turned instead into a ten-hour Boxing Day ordeal. It didn't help that our GPS, oblivious to current political situations, guided us to the Lithuanian-Belarusian border, which technically might've been the quickest route, but certainly wasn't the one we wanted to take. At least the attractive Belarusian female border guard allowed us to back up and return to Lithuania instead of throwing Amber, Shu-E and me into prison for attempting to enter her country without visas, but this unintended detour added an extra hour and 80 kilometers onto our trip. It was with a great sense of relief that we finally crossed the correct border, having lunch at a truck stop and converting some euros into zlotys at a kantor (private currency-exchange office):

It soon got worse. Twice we were on fast-moving highways with signs pointing toward Warsaw, only to have the GPS direct us off these roads and onto slow-speed routes passing through an endless series of dreary towns and villages. When finally we pulled onto what appeared to be an expressway on the outskirts of Poland's capital city with a maximum speed limit of 120kph, we quickly ran into two serious obstacles: a huge road construction project that reduced traffic to one lane in either direction and those Warsaw residents returning home after the Christmas/Boxing Day holiday weekend. When we finally pulled into our hotel parking lot at almost 7pm local time, we were tired and hungry, only to discover that the only place open to eat was the McDonald's next to the Statoil behind the building. Even the Arkadia shopping mall across the road was closed, with the exception of the movie theater and two stores in the food court: KFC and (you guessed it) another McDonald's:

I tried a lot of Polish beers, but this one (purchased from the Statoil minimart) was by far the best

Laying out the zloty (upper and middle rows) and the groszy (bottom row). Missing from the photo are banknotes in denominations of 200zł, 50 and 20; and coins in 1gr, 2gr and 5gr

The next morning after breakfast (and following a much-needed good night's sleep), I took a walk around the neighborhood while the girls packed up (yes, we only stayed the night before heading off to Krakow). The Polish flag was flying proudly in a very stiff breeze:

An eerie cemetery and an apt reminder of the ghosts that haunt Poland's recent past (up to a fifth of the population perished in the Second World War, including more than 90% of the country's Jews):

The Hotel Maria - spacious rooms, good breakfast spread and very reasonably priced, especially considering its location in Warsaw's financial district:

After checking out, we made the short drive to Old Town (Stare Miasto), which is only fifty or so years old thanks to the war. Just 15% of the city's buildings were left standing after the failed Warsaw Uprising, but Old Town was painstakingly recreated between 1949 and 1953, eventually being granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 1980:

The highlight of Old Town is the Royal Castle (Zamek Królewski), which itself was only completed in 1984. The original building started out as a wooden stronghold of the dukes of Mazovia in the 14th century, before becoming one of Europe's most magnificent royal residences in the mid-17th century. It later served as the residence of the Polish president after 1918 before being destroyed by the Germans in World War II. Today it's a fascinating museum of period furniture and works of art, and an introduction to Poland's royal history:

Among the highlights of the "Castle Tour" is the Great Assembly Hall, restored to its 18th-century grandeur and dominated by the enormous ceiling painting called The Disentanglement of Chaos:

King Stanislaw August Poniatowski, flanked by Peace and Justice:

The Throne Room (as if there were any doubt):

The Marble Room, recreated in 16th-century style and housing 22 portraits of Polish kings:

The King's Apartment:

The Canaletto Room. The 23 paintings by Bernardo Bellotto of Warsaw in the mid-1700's were of great help in the reconstruction of the city's landmarks and monuments after the war:

A map of Lithuania showing the Polish name for Vilnius, Wilno:

The Constitution of the 3rd of May 1791, by Jan Matejko, one of the highlights of the Crown Prince's Apartment:

A pair of Rembrandts, part of a temporary exhibit at the castle:

After touring the Royal Castle, we strolled through the Old Town Square (Rynek Starego Miasta). The 1855 statue of the Mermaid (Syrena) serves as the symbol of Warsaw:

Lunchtime in Old Town. My wife enjoys a Żywiec (of which I could only have a few sips as I was the designated driver), while I prepare to dig into...I never caught the name, but it was made of sourdough and filled with sausages and vegetables, and was pretty fortifying, which was fortuitous as...: I would need all the energy I could muster for the five-hour grind to Krakow, a drive that took longer than needed thanks to more road construction and the lack of a direct expressway link between the two cities. The delights of Krakow, however, would make the long haul worthwhile.

To be continued...

A free sample of Polish vodka, courtesy of our hotel in Krakow and much appreciated by this weary chauffeur 

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Merry Christmas メリークリスマス 聖誕節快樂 С Рождеством Linksmų Kalėdų

It was almost a white Christmas. There was snow on the ground as late as Friday afternoon and falling snow yesterday evening, but most of it had washed away as Christmas Eve turned into Christmas Day. While snow would've added a touch of romanticism to our first Noel in Lithuania, after several cartoon-like falls over the past few weeks, as far as I'm concerned the more color to the holiday the better. This weekend has been a quiet one, which is as it should be. We opened our presents this morning and everyone seemed satisfied with what they received. And while the girls relaxed at home, I went for a two hour-plus walk this afternoon through the streets of Old Town (I had wanted to ride my bike, but rain threatened to fall all this day, so I hoofed it instead). Things were actually busier today compared to yesterday, with more people out and about and more businesses open for customers. Just as the Lunar New Year's Eve is more important for families in Taiwan than the first day of the Lunar New Year, Christmas Eve takes precedence over Christmas Day in Lithuania, which explains why it was comparatively quieter yesterday.

While "Fuck 2016" has been a justifiably popular refrain of late (after all, it's been the year of Brexit, Trump, Aleppo and the deaths of people like David Bowie and Prince), we as a family haven't much to complain about. We're now settled down in a city and country that we really like, and all three of us have enjoyed good health, as have our loved ones (knock on wood). May the good fortune continue and be extended to the world as a whole...all of us are going to need all the good luck we can get in the upcoming new year!

My daughter receives a gift from Santa at the embassy Christmas party, held last week at the ambassador's residence

Snow coming down on Saturday night

In our take on a modern-day Japanese Christmas tradition, we dined on takeout from KFC on Christmas Eve (KFC being one of the few restaurants open on Saturday)

Vilnius Cathedral and the Christmas village on Sunday afternoon

Inside the cathedral

Valavičius Chapel, established in the cathedral in the early 17th century

A Shakespeare-themed hotel on Bernardinų gatvė

Literature-themed artworks on the walls of the appropriately-dubbed Literatų gatvė

A tattoo parlor closed today, disappointing those who couldn't wait to spend their Christmas money on getting themselves inked

The abandoned Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Consolation, now serving the needs of those souls in search of a free parking space

Lithuanian National Philharmonic

Basilian Gate

The 17th-century Orthodox Church of the Holy Spirit, Vilnius' main Russian Orthodox church

Bukowski, a pilgrimage site for Lithuanian barflies

Walking past the Presidential Palace. As you know from our visit a fortnight ago, the Lithuanian flag flying from the rooftop signifies the president is currently somewhere in Vilnius

VCUP (Vilnius Central Department Store) - closed for the day, but still beaming proudly as darkness descends around a quarter after four in the afternoon

Happy holidays!

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Survival of the not-too-fittest

The winter solstice is still three days away, but winter has been making itself at home here since late October. Thanks to indoor heating, winter tires and a small fortune spent on coats, gloves, shoes, long underwear and Yaktrax, this California native has been coping pretty well, if he doesn't mind saying so himself (especially now that he's managed to avoid any further cartoon-like pratfalls on the ice). He...I have to admit the winter landscape is beautiful, and when the sun makes a rare appearance like it did last Thursday, a walk following lunch in the area near my workplace can be surprisingly therapeutic, taking in snow-covered Catholic shrines...

...scenic viewpoints...:

...and the occasional Russian Orthodox church (Sts. Constantine and Michael):

The sun didn't come out on Saturday, but my family and I stopped by the aforementioned scenic viewpoint to let Amber slide down the hillside there, both on her stomach penguin-style and on the cheap plastic disk we'd purchased a few years ago while in Virginia:

Dad preferred to stand guard at the bottom of the slope in order to prevent my daughter from flying over a ledge and into a grove of trees. I was also thinking of a colleague who recently tore his Achilles heel playing basketball, a reminder that men over the age of forty and recreational sports don't always make the best combination. Shu-E, on the other hand, had no qualms about letting gravity do its thing:

The icy surface  and steepness of the gradient made the going especially quick, but as you can see, Amber didn't seem daunted. Oh, to be a kid again:

The sun remained hidden on Sunday as well, but I took Amber out in the early afternoon, partly to give my wife the opportunity to finish some Christmas shopping:

The two of us had tacos for lunch at No Forks (there were, in fact, forks available). The Wostok apricot & almond fruit soda has its origins in the Soviet Union:

Playing around with some photo effects while walking past the Town Hall...:

...and down Pilies gatvė:

Amber and I stepped in from the cold, ice and snow to the National Museum of Lithuania (Lietuvos Nacionalinis Muziejus). Housed in the 19th-century New Arsenal building, the museum displays artefacts from Lithuanian life that have been collected by the Museum of Antiquities since 1855. A statue of King Mindaugas has been standing guard out front for the past thirteen years:

Among the displays are this executioner's sword from the 16th-17th centuries...:

...this impressive 18th-century sleigh...:

...a fan supposedly given by the Japanese emperor to the officers of the Russian frigate Askold in 1857...: iron handprint of Peter the Great...:

...some drinking vessels...:

...religious items...:

...and some articles of war:

Speaking of military matters, the museum has a small but haunting display of artefacts retrieved from a mass grave of soldiers of Napoleon's Grande Armée, which paused in Vilnius on the disastrous retreat from the failed invasion of Russia in 1812:

Lithuanian traditional costumes:

A life-size recreation of a Lithuanian peasant family home:

If there's one thing Lithuanian folk artists know how to do, it's crosses. They do it so well, in fact, that cross-crafting is listed by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage:

The special exhibition going on during our visit today was a photographic collection of ruined churches and manor homes in Lithuania, some destroyed by war, others by the Soviet and some for mysterious reasons from a century or two ago. Urban explorers would enjoy this country:

I've managed so far to keep up my spirits despite the cold, darkness and snow, and as yet not broken out the happy light or felt an overwhelming urge to drive immediately to the airport and hop on the first plane that will eventually deposit me on a beach in southern Thailand. But there's still a long way to go before I can break out the shorts and sandals and enjoy an 11pm sunset. Check back with me after our first -25°C (-13°F) day to see how I'm coping then (and send some Scotch to warm my bones)...: